Taliban takeover prompts fears of a resurgent al-Qaeda

The terror group’s capabilities have been severely diminished by 20 years of war, but it still has hundreds of operatives in Afghanistan shielded by their Taliban allies

In this September 11, 2001 file photo, as seen from the New Jersey Turnpike near Kearny, New Jersey, smoke billows from the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York after airplanes flown by Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into both towers. (AP Photo/Gene Boyars, File)
In this September 11, 2001 file photo, as seen from the New Jersey Turnpike near Kearny, New Jersey, smoke billows from the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York after airplanes flown by Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into both towers. (AP Photo/Gene Boyars, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The lightning-fast changes in Afghanistan are forcing the Biden administration to confront the prospect of a resurgent al-Qaeda, the group that attacked America on September 11, 2001, at the same time the US is trying to stanch violent extremism at home and cyberattacks from Russia and China.

With the rapid withdrawal of US forces and rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, “I think al-Qaeda has an opportunity, and they’re going to take advantage of that opportunity,” says Chris Costa, who was senior director for counterterrorism in the Trump administration.

“This is a galvanizing event for jihadists everywhere.”

Al-Qaeda’s ranks have been significantly diminished by 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and it’s far from clear that the group has the capacity in the near future to carry out catastrophic attacks on America such as the 9/11 strikes, especially given how the US has fortified itself in the past two decades with surveillance and other protective measures.

But a June report from the UN Security Council said the group’s senior leadership remains present inside Afghanistan, along with hundreds of armed operatives. It noted that the Taliban, who sheltered al-Qaeda fighters before the September 11 attacks, “remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged Friday that al-Qaeda remains a presence in Afghanistan, though quantifying it is hard because of a reduced intelligence-gathering capability in the country and “because it’s not like they carry identification cards and register somewhere.”

In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Mazhar Ali Khan, File)

Even inside the country, al-Qaeda and the Taliban represent only two of the urgent terrorism concerns, as evidenced by unease about the potential for Islamic State attacks against Americans in Afghanistan that over the weekend forced the US military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul. The Taliban and IS have fought each other in the past, but the worry now is that Afghanistan could again be a safe harbor for multiple extremists determined to attack the US or other countries.

President Joe Biden has spoken repeatedly of what he calls an “over-the-horizon capability” that he says will enable the US to keep track of terrorism threats from afar. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters Monday that counterterrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where the threat can be suppressed without a strong boots-on-the-ground presence. The US is also presumably anticipating that strengthened airport screening and more sophisticated surveillance can be more effective than 20 years ago in thwarting an attack.

But experts also worry that intelligence-gathering capabilities needed as an early-warning system against an attack will be negatively affected by the troop withdrawal.

An added complication is the sheer volume of pressing national security threats that dwarf what the US government was confronting before the September 11 attacks. These include sophisticated cyber operations from China and Russia that can cripple critical infrastructure or pilfer sensitive secrets, nuclear ambitions in Iran and an ascendant domestic terrorism threat laid bare by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

FBI Director Chris Wray has described that home-grown threat as “metastasizing,” with the number of arrests of white supremacists and racially motivated extremists nearly tripling since his first year on the job in 2017.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, supporters of President Donald Trump, including Jacob Chansley, right with fur hat, are confronted by US Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“My concern is that you can’t compare 2001 to today,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. There’s a “much vaster and better organized bureaucracy,” he said, but it’s burdened with demands not specifically tied to terrorism.

Hoffman said that although he didn’t think al-Qaeda would be able to quickly use Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against the US, it may re-establish “its coordinating function” in the region to work with and encourage strikes by its affiliates — a patient strategy that may yet be vindicated.

“Terrorist groups don’t conform to train timetables or flight schedules,” Hoffman said. “They do things when it suits them and, as al-Qaeda was doing, they quietly lay the foundation in hopes that that foundation will eventually affect or determine their success.”

The concern is resonant enough that Biden administration officials told Congress last week that, based on the evolving situation, they now believe terror groups like al-Qaeda may be able to grow much faster than expected. In June, the Pentagon’s top leaders said an extremist group like al-Qaeda may be able to regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the US homeland within two years of the American military’s withdrawal.

The September 11 attacks made al-Qaeda the most internationally recognizable terror group, but in the past decade at least, the most potent threat inside the US has come from individuals inspired by the Islamic State, resulting in deadly massacres like the ones in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando.

Orlando Police officers direct family members away from a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

But al-Qaeda hardly disappeared. US authorities alleged last year that a Saudi gunman who killed three US sailors at a military base in Florida in 2019 had communicated with al-Qaeda operatives about planning and tactics. Last December, the Justice Department charged a Kenyan man with trying to stage a 9/11-style attack on the US on behalf of the terrorist organization al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaeda.

Now it’s possible that other extremists will find themselves inspired by al-Qaeda, even if not directed by it.

“Until recently, I would have said that the threat from al-Qaeda core is pretty modest. They didn’t have safe haven in Afghanistan, their senior leadership was scattered,” said Nathan Sales, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

But, now with the Taliban back in control, “all of that could change and could change very rapidly.”

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